On Friday night I found myself, rather unexpectedly, all alone in this big old house. Because I was feeling oddly melancholy and lonely, being alone with the huge dark windows and the creaking roof bought back all these memory of the year I livedalone. During that time the internet was both my best friend and my greatest enemy (as it so often is). Some nights, I’d starve off loneliness by Skypeing my brother for hours or chatting to someone on Gmail. Then other nights, there’d be no one there, just endless, echoing void. And all I’d feel was the aching distance stretching out between me and the people I cared about.
Part of the reason Friday reminded me so acutely of all those things was that I was on a self-imposed internet break, something I’ve been doing one day a week for the last few months. I have an alarm set for midday on Friday and from then until midday Saturday I switch off.
In truth, I’ve only been “internet free” on a handful of those days. Very early on I had to make an exception: I was allowed to use the internet but only for work related purposes, because without the internet it would be neigh impossible to get uni work done. I need the internet to do my readings, to research and review and upload. Even when I want
to do without, I find that’s nearly impossible. This stems from a much larger problem and is one of the reasons I’m looking forward to putting uni behind me.
So rather than “internet free time”, I should probably call it “social network free time”.
The strangest thing about this exercise is that it is simultaneously very hard and very easy. When I told my friend Beth, she said it sounds like playing the kazoo; almost anyone can, if they want to, but it takes dedication to learn to do it with any kind of skill.
On the one hand, nothing happens while I’m offline. When I log back on, it takes about half an hour to catch up on 24 hours’ worth of stuff. Not once have I felt that I’ve missed out on something. And somehow, I feel more productive on the days I go offline. Even if I don’t actually achieve much, I feel less aimless, more purposeful, less like I’ve wasted a day.
On the other hand, not checking Facebook and Twitter and everything else takes near constant, conscious effort. I’ll pick up my phone and force myself to put it back down. My cursor hovers precariously over the Chrome icon before I move it away again. When I wake up on Saturday morning, I’ll regularly sit down at the computer and only then realise there is still hours to go before I can check anything.
Sometimes I let myself check my email. Like a nicotine patch it briefly stops the craving.
Because it is a craving. One of the main things I’ve realised is that I am, unquestionably, addicted. The constant impulse to refresh is drilled into us. The Facebook app has that little red circle hovering over it’s icon: you have notifications. Don’t you want to know what they are?
It goes beyond a want and becomes a need – I couldn’t give it up, even if I wanted to. That’s such a sobering fact.
In lots of ways, that’s the real reason why I think my weekly, self-imposed hiatus matters. It isn’t just a productivity thing; it reminds me, once a week, that life goes on without Twitter. You can still contact people without Facebook. I think it’s important to remember what these things do to us and how much they get inside your brain. I don’t think that social networking is inherently evil, not at all, but it certainly isn’t all sunshine and roses either.
So here’s my challenge: try it. Switch off the computer or the internet or just social media. And don’t just do it for an hour, do it for a day. And then do it again a week later. Sound daunting? Was your first reaction “That’d be nice I guess but maybe another day”? Then ask yourself why. Because, at the end of the day, I think it’s the why that matters.